Ah, September, the time for football, for baseball’s stretch run and, to the true freak, the imminent opening of NBA camps—in fact, on October 2nd, a mere nine days from today.
My standard riff each year is that the Western Conference is far better than the Eastern Conference. It’s still true–I offer in evidence Charlotte, Orlando, Toronto, Cleveland, Detroit and Washington (though the Wiz will emerge this season)–but the gap is narrowing, notably since Andrew Bynum was dealt to the Sixers. Yes, Dwight Howard came over to the West but it’s not the same. Howard’s team wasn’t a factor last year, even with him. The Sixers will be a major factor in 2012-13.
As a preface to any thoughts about the Western Conference, it should be mentioned that it’s very difficult for teams to get better. For starters, the restrictions on trades are onerous. Like the requirement for matching contracts, for example. Also, the West is loaded with good teams. And it’s especially tough on those teams in the middle. I’m thinking of teams like Utah, Houston, Phoenix and, as an example in the East, Milwaukee. If one of those teams wins the 8th playoff spot, it will probably lose in the first round and get the 14th or 15th or 16th pick. If it falls short of the playoffs, it winds up with the 17th or 18th pick. So all we’re talking about are roughly picks 14 through 18. You are going to get very comparable players in that range. So the teams in the middle can only hope to get incrementally better. They’re too smart to be among the bottom three, four or five teams where they could draft an elite player.
We’ve mentioned trade restrictions, the plethora of good teams in the West and the Sisyphean struggle of middle-of-the-pack teams, but probably the biggest obstacle to getting better for the above-mentioned four teams are the cities those teams play in. They just aren’t Los Angeles, New York or Miami. Sure, teams like Cleveland or Detroit can attract some free agents, but not the superstars, the players who make a big difference.
In the NBA, to paraphrase Freud, geography is destiny. The Los Angeles Lakers have the biggest advantage in this regard. They are the #1 destination of choice, and it’s easy to see why, especially since the NBA is mostly a winter sport. LA is a great city with great weather, and lots of NBA players come from Southern California or played ball there; so playing for the Lakers means they can see family and friends. (Of late, ditto the Clippers.) Los Angeles also provides an athlete with maximum opportunities for other careers– broadcasting, movies, TV, recording–or for simply living the good life.